Zimbabwe has plans to cut poaching off at its source—quite literally. In a last ditch effort to protect its dwindling rhino populations, the country announced that every rhino living in its national parks will be dehorned by the end of the year.
Approximately 800 black and white rhinos are managed by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. Between 2007 and 2009, one quarter of the country's rhinos were illegally killed for their horns. Last year, poachers killed 50 individuals, despite threats from Zimbabwe's minister of environment that stricter criminal sentences would be enforced.
"Our strategy is to try and save the rhino, if the poachers know that the rhino at national park here does not have horns, he is unlikely to come here and kill it," Cephas Mudenda, a board member of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, told Bloomberg last week.
Without a doubt, dehorning is one of the most controversial anti-poaching strategies. When performed safely by a veterinarian, the process removes 90 to 93 percent of the rhino's horns, which are made up of keratin, like our hair and fingernails. In theory, once the incentive for poaching the animal is removed, the demand for killing them will decrease. According to Reuters, removing the horns of a single rhino can cost nearly $1,200.
But vocal critics of dehorning, such as the conservation organization Save the Rhino, are skeptical of its ability to effectively deter poachers. When rhinos in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park were dehorned during the 1990s, the group noted, the majority of them were killed one year later. In 2011, two dehorned rhinos were poached less than a week after the procedure occurred.
Once removed, a rhino's horns will grow back at a rate of three to four inches per year, which makes this tactic impermanent and expensive. And, as the World Wildlife Fund has argued, approximately 5 percent of rhinos die under sedation. Because it's so difficult to determine how wild animals will react to sedatives, each operation is a risk that some organizations deem too risky.
Some biologists also believe that dehorning rhinos can prevent them from behaving naturally. A recent survey, funded by South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs in 2011, suggested the social impacts of dehorning were also significant. Dominance in male black rhinos, for instance, is closely tied to horn length. And in smaller populations, it may be difficult for rhinos to establish a hierarchy if all of the animals' horns are removed.
However, even critics will admit that in the face of extreme adversity, there may be no better option. Dehorning could work, according to Save the Rhinos, if paired with another anti-poaching strategy, such as armed security forces. Recently, park rangers in Zimbabwe have started using military-style weapons to combat poachers in the field.
"Dehorning is not a significant issue for rhinos in terms of behavior and reproductive health," Raoul du Toit, director of Zimbabwe's Lowveld Rhino Trust, once told Real Clear Science. "The evolutionary advantages of possessing a horn were developed before AK-47s were invented and are not such advantages now."
Rhino horn was once coveted by practitioners of traditional medicine who mistook it as an aphrodisiac. Today, it's most commonly viewed as a symbol of status and wealth. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that rhino horn provides any sort of medicinal benefit. Many conservationists are now focusing on educating communities about the plight of rhinos, in order to reduce demand for their horns.
Approximately 100 rhinos live in Zimbabwe's state game parks, and authorities are now attempting to dehorn them. Rhinos that are found in private game reserves, however, will not be included in the purge, according to Lisa Marabini, director of operations at Aware Trust Zimbabwe.
"We want to send a message to poachers that they will not get much if they come to Zimbabwe."